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The Decline in News Coverage of Appellate Court Decisions

By Eric J. Magnuson and Chelsea A. Walcker

On the final day of the 2016 Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit, a panel of esteemed current and former journalists tackled the pressing issue of declining news coverage of appellate court decisions in the United States. Moderator Howard Bashman, a Philadelphia appellate lawyer and popular legal blogger, invited the panelists to address the decline in reporting of appellate court decisions by the traditional news media and to offer suggestions for how journalists and courts can inform the public about appellate court decisions in order to foster the public’s understanding of the appellate legal process and judiciary as a whole. The consensus among the panelists was that the shrinking of traditional news media coverage has ushered in a change in reporting on appellate court decisions and that such reporting, particularly at the state level, is generally limited.

Panelist Chris Davey, Assistant Vice President for Media and Public Relations for Ohio State University, provided a summary of overall trends in news media and explained that declining news media coverage as well as newspaper subscriptions pose serious concerns for the public’s understanding, trust, and confidence in the courts. To compensate for the “dying news media,” Davey suggested that appellate courts engage the public directly. However, Davey acknowledged that approach is not without challenges; the judiciary’s traditional independence does not necessarily lend itself to public engagement. Davey cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s stringent rules for journalists, such as limiting the number of pencils and paper that can be brought into the courtroom, as an example of the U.S. Supreme Court not being in the twenty-first century in terms of accessibility. Nonetheless, Davey suggested that courts must find ways to reconcile their traditional independence with the absolute necessity of supporting understanding of the judiciary in order to foster public trust and confidence in the courts.

Panelist Paula Reed Ward, writer at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, offered a slightly different view of the legal journalistic landscape. Ward stated that while daily journalism has declined significantly over the past several years, at least some newspapers still prioritize court coverage. However, Ward explained that such coverage is increasingly limited to major appellate court decisions that are readily available to the news media. Ward criticized the limited public information available to reporters seeking to cover appellate court decisions in the media. For example, Ward said that in Pennsylvania, appellate courts do not post briefs online, so reporters might waste an hour attempting to locate appellate briefs only to ditch the article in order to meet other pressing deadlines. As a remedy, Ward suggested that courts post briefs online, preferably in real time. Ward also suggested that courts do more to engage the press by inviting reporters to attend events or to discuss upcoming case dockets before decisions are released.

Panelist Josh Gerstein, senior writer at Politico, agreed with the other panelists’ views on the decline of news media coverage, particularly coverage of appellate court decisions. Gerstein suggested that the Internet can help address these problems. Gerstein identified a number of concrete steps that appellate courts can take using the Internet to ensure that news coverage of court decisions is accurate and timely. For example, Gerstein encouraged courts to post briefs online, provide an RRS feed — which would enable journalists to track cases and receive filing alerts, and post oral argument videos online to reach broader audiences. Gernstein also encouraged appellate judges to draft their opinions to make them understandable to the public and media at large and to provide a summary or clear issue statement to save reporters time in reviewing sometimes lengthy decisions.

The panelists and moderator appeared to be in agreement that the “crisis” in news media coverage has created an opportunity for courts to play a more important role in ensuring that the public remains informed about appellate court decisions and the appellate court process. Although some appellate courts have embraced the use of official court websites and other technologies to directly communicate with the public at large, it remains to be seen whether the judicial branch as a whole will embrace a more active role in providing information on appellate court decisions to the public—a role that was traditionally reserved to journalists.

Originally published in Appellate Issues, Winter 2017

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